Oct 28, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each Wednesday, we will bring you my best scoops and analysis from contributors from around the region.
  • We're starting this week's edition (1,881 words, 7 minutes) with a look at what the U.S. election means for Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Sign up here if you haven't yet, and please spread the word.

1 big thing: A big election for Netanyahu

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest domestic political asset is on the ballot on Nov. 3 — his relationship with President Trump.

Why it matters: The outcome of America's election could help determine whether Israel soon faces yet another election of its own.

In the coming weeks, Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz — his political rival turned coalition partner — will decide whether to attempt to salvage their dysfunctional coalition or opt for early elections.

  • Netanyahu is on shaky political footing. His approval ratings have plummeted amid a second coronavirus wave, and he could find himself in court three days a week as of January to defend himself against corruption charges.
  • If Trump wins, Netanyahu will likely use his close relationship with Trump to recover domestically. He may try to cash in through early elections, telling voters he can accomplish many things if he gets another four years of working with Trump.
  • If Trump loses, it will be a big blow at a time when Netanyahu can hardly afford it. Netanyahu has a long-standing, friendly personal relationship with Joe Biden, but nothing like the ideological and political alignment he has with Trump.

The state of play: Israel's government needs to pass a budget by December to survive, but Gantz is insisting that it also pass the 2021 budget by then, holding out the threat of an early election at a time when the polls look rough for Netanyahu.

  • Passing a 2021 budget would make it legally impossible for Netanyahu to renege on their power-sharing deal.
  • It calls for Gantz to become prime minister on Nov. 17, 2021, so he'd be guaranteed to take office, at least for a short period.

Behind the scenes: Gantz's aides say the U.S. election results will factor into their decision-making on the potential election and that they believe the same is true for Netanyahu. Netanyahu's aides deny that the results will influence his political calculus.

What to watch: Netanyahu is treading carefully in the lead-up to the election.

  • When Trump tried to obtain an endorsement last Friday during a call with Netanyahu and the leaders of Sudan — asking if “Sleepy Joe” could have sealed such a diplomatic deal — Netanyahu said he'd be happy to work for peace with any American partner.
  • The following day, Netanyahu was asked in a press conference whether he was concerned about U.S. policy shifts if Biden wins. He said he hoped any future U.S. administration would continue to push for normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

Between the lines: The perception that Netanyahu’s political rivals have closer ties to the U.S. president than he does would be particularly damaging domestically should Biden win. His influence in the White House would also dramatically diminish.

  • Nevertheless, Netanyahu managed to use tensions with Barack Obama over issues like Iran to rally his conservative base. If Biden wins, Netanyahu could argue in his next election campaign that he “protected” Israel from Obama, and would now “protect” it from Biden.
  • That would be a big shift from the last three campaigns, which Netanyahu centered around his close relationship with Trump.
2. The Palestinian view: Hoping for Biden

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The stakes of the elections may be even higher for Palestinian leaders.

Why it matters: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut off all contact with the Trump administration three years ago after Trump announced the U.S. would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem, but ties will quickly be restored if Biden enters the White House.

On the ground: Abd Elraouf Arnaout, political correspondent of Al-Ayyam newspaper, says Palestinian officials don't know exactly what to expect from Biden, but think anything would be better than four more years of Trump:

  • Arnaout reports from Ramallah that Palestinian officials are following the race closely, and Abbas is briefed on it continuously.
  • Abbas has turned down many proposals to meet or speak with Trump or other senior U.S. officials, he reports. All contacts have come through third parties — mainly regional and world leaders.
  • But Abbas and his aides have maintained contact with Democratic members of Congress and have been encouraged by their support for the two-state solution and opposition to Israeli annexations.

The bottom line: "Palestinian leaders hope for a totally different reality and policy under Biden," Arnaout says.

3. Scoop: Secret Israel-Sudan contacts paved the way for a deal

Trump on the phone with the leaders of Sudan and Israel. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty

While the U.S. officially brokered the Israel-Sudan normalization deal, it was Israel that facilitated talks between the U.S. and Sudan on the broader deal that included Sudan’s removal from America’s state sponsors of terrorism list.

Why it matters: Israel’s secret contacts with Sudanese officials paved the way for a deal that was nearly a year in the making.

  • This story is based on the accounts of four U.S. and Israeli officials who were involved in the process but declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the talks.

Flashback: In early 2019, Sudan’s then-dictator Omar al-Bashir reached out to Israel amid a desperate attempt to hold onto power.

  • Bashir spoke several times with an Israeli intelligence officer-turned-diplomat nicknamed “Maoz,” who previously spent many years handling the Shin Bet intelligence agency’s assets inside Hamas in Gaza.
  • Maoz had a new role inside Netanyahu’s office: developing relationships with countries in Africa and the Arab world that didn’t have diplomatic ties with Israel.
  • Israel was willing to listen to Bashir but not to provide him assistance, Israeli officials say.

Last January, several months after Bashir was toppled, Netanyahu proposed a meeting with the head of Sudan’s transitional government, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to discuss normalization.

  • Nick Kaufman, a British-Israeli lawyer who was advising the new Sudanese government on Bashir’s potential extradition to the International Criminal Court, touched down in Khartoum bearing the letter from Netanyahu. He returned with a positive reply from Burhan.
  • Najwa Gadaheldam, a close adviser to Burhan who had also advised Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, worked with Maoz to secretly arrange a meeting in Uganda under Moseveni’s auspices.
  • The meeting on Feb. 3 constituted a historic breakthrough in Israeli-Sudanese relations. Burhan was prepared to immediately proceed with normalization, but Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok — who had been left in the dark about the meeting — vehemently objected, Israeli officials say.

The Israeli elections and the COVID-19 pandemic put the Sudan-Israel track on the back burner, though Maoz continued to speak each week with Burhan or his aides.

  • Sudan allowed Israeli planes to use Sudanese airspace for the first time in March as they evacuated Israelis from South Africa and Latin America.
  • The Israelis later sent a medical team to Sudan in May when Gadaheldam became ill with COVID-19. She was too ill to be evacuated to Israel and died a few days after the doctors arrived.

Behind the scenes: When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel in April, Netanyahu lobbied him to view Sudan as an opportunity and open a direct channel of communication with Burhan. Their first call was facilitated by the Israelis and came days after that visit.

  • Progress between the U.S. and Sudan moved slowly for several months.
  • Then, when the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, the U.S. began to look for more countries to follow suit.
4. Part II: Finishing the deal

The Israelis proposed that the Trump administration merge its dialogue with Sudan with the Israel-Sudan talks on normalization. The UAE made a similar proposal.

  • Sudan was high on the agenda when Pompeo visited Israel in late August, and the Israelis facilitated a direct flight for him from Tel Aviv to Sudan.
  • Pompeo's advisers were briefed by Netanyahu's aides, who even offered advice on how to handle the talks.
  • Burhan was anxious to seal a deal involving both the terror list and normalization, but he needed Hamdok to agree.

When Pompeo met Hamdok, he proposed a deal: Sudan would be removed from the terror list, receive a U.S aid package and normalize relations with Israel.

  • Pompeo told Hamdok that Trump was ready to make the deal right away. He even proposed a call with Trump and Netanyahu to seal the deal, but Hamdok demurred.
  • Over the next few weeks, Israeli officials including Ambassador Ron Dermer continued to lobby the Trump administration to make the deal, with Netanyahu suggesting the U.S. provide more incentives to Sudan.
  • On the U.S. side, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his senior adviser Aryeh Lightstone also pressed for a deal

By Sept. 21, it seemed a deal was imminent. The Emiratis and Israelis organized a meeting in Abu Dhabi between a senior Sudanese delegation and a White House team led by Gen. Miguel Correa, the National Security Council director for Africa and the Gulf.

  • But after two days of negotiations, the talks exploded.
  • One reason was the big gap between the aid package the Sudanese expected and the one the U.S. was offering.
  • Another was a cultural clash and language barriers caused messages from the sides to get lost in translation. The negotiators butted heads and the talks broke down.
  • The Israelis and Emiratis worked to ease tensions and bring the sides closer together — warning the Sudanese that they'd never get such a good offer after the U.S. election, while pressing the Americans to sweeten the deal.
  • After a short lull, the talks resumed. Correa and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz spoke to the Sudanese ambassador in Washington, Pompeo continued to speak with Hamdok, and the Israelis and Emiratis continued lobbying both sides.

At what would prove to be a decisive meeting on Oct. 21 in Khartoum, talks nearly broke down again over the sequencing of the elements of the deal.

  • The U.S. wanted Sudan to announce a normalization agreement with Israel first, or at least in tandem with the announcement on the terror list.
  • They eventually gave in to the Sudanese insistence that the terror designation be lifted first.

Two days later, with Netanyahu and Sudanese leaders on the phone and the TV cameras rolling, Trump announced the deal.

5. Behind the scenes: Awkward encounter for Mnuchin

Mnuchin arrives in Israel from the UAE. Photo: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem/Handout via Getty

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was confronted by Yitzhak Rabin's daughter last week after a speech on the Arab-Israeli peace process in which he seemed to overlook the role of the late Israeli prime minister.

Why it matters: Rabin is quite a major figure to leave out. He's remembered for making peace with Jordan, sealing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, and establishing relations with Morocco, Oman and Tunisia.

What happened: Mnuchin was addressing Israeli, Emirati and American businesspeople in Abu Dhabi. He gave a historical overview of previous peace talks but didn't mention Rabin, several people who were in the room say.

  • Mnuchin spoke about the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement and mentioned the work of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
  • He then moved onto the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement, mentioning the work of Bill Clinton and Jordan's King Hussein but not Rabin, who negotiated and signed that agreement
  • He also left out the Oslo Accords, which Rabin, Clinton and Yasser Arafat negotiated.

Between the lines: The omission may have been unintentional, but it stunned the late prime minister's daughter, Dalia Rabin, according to a person who discussed it with her.

  • She approached Mnuchin immediately after the speech, asking why he failed to mention her father and whether he thinks her father’s work for peace was unimportant.
  • A surprised Mnuchin told her, “This was my speech and I don’t owe you any explanations."

What they're saying: Mnuchin didn't realize he was speaking with Rabin's daughter, according to assistant secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs Monica Crowley.

  • "She did not introduce herself or otherwise identify her relationship to the prime minister. After their brief conversation, the secretary inquired of another guest as to her identity," Crowley told me.
  • "It is unfortunate because if she had properly introduced herself, the secretary would have been happy to discuss her father and his historic legacy of peace."

Worth noting: Next week, Israel will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli terrorist who opposed the Oslo Accords.